Three trips to Tanna

By Tim Foster.

As an engineer working for the Condominium Public Works Department I was responsible for overseeing operations in Southern District and Central District number one and I travelled to other islands in the course of my job.

In early 1977 my boss Pierre Garsonnin (Chef du Service) asked me to go down to Tanna to meet our foreman, Emil Broux, and familiarise myself with operations there. So I went.

In accordance with protocol I visited the British District Agent before touring the various public works with M. Broux, (the French D.A. was not on the island). After our morning tour Mme. Broux gave me my lunch and afterwards M. Broux loaned me a four wheel drive vehicle and suggested I might like to go and visit Yasur. I think he wanted me out of his hair.

I found my way across the island and climbed up through the ash. There were no waymarks then and I had to follow a very faint track. Yasur was relatively quiet at the time but I could still feel tremors underfoot and there were numerous fumaroles spurting fumes and smoke. I had a quick look into the crater and then legged it back down ending up at the bottom covered in ash.

Back at Isangel my overnight accommodation was in the Government rest house but the dorms were already fully occupied. There was a graduate from Sheffield University studying Co-operatives on Tanna, a Dane doing something similar and two or three others doing something I can’t recall. I had to bed down on a cot brought in from the police station and set up in the “dining area”.

I spent a restless night, waking up several times and noticing a strange sweet smell pervading the room. Next morning one of the other guys mentioned they had noticed the same smell. It was only when someone went to cook breakfast that they found the gas cooker had been left on, unlit, all night. Luckily, as it had been a hot night, all the windows and doors had been left open ventilating the rooms well and no-one had lit a fag or thought to light a mosquito coil otherwise we might have rivalled Yasur’s displays.

My second visit was completely uneventful. I had gone down to look at the operation of the electricity supply provided by the P.W.D. by means of a diesel generator which was operated for a couple of hours in the morning and from about 6.00pm to 10.30pm. Electricity was distributed over a small network by means of overhead wires. Looking at the record of billing in the office it was clear that getting payment from the consumers was problematic and I had also noticed several illicit tappings from the distribution wires. It seemed to me that the cost of administering the service outweighed the income and I felt that if electricity was provided free, proper safe connections would result with reduced risks. Back in Vila I made this recommendation to M. Garsonnin who instigated the change.

My third visit nearly resulted in a minor diplomatic incident. The P.W.D. team on Tanna, now run by Leon Langlois, was constructing a new road to Whitegrass through the bush and I was visiting to see how work was progressing. I wanted to do the visit in one day, flying down in the morning and returning on the afternoon flight so when I arrived I asked Leon to take me direct to the work site.

All was going well so I returned to Isangel and visited Gordon Norris who was B.D.A. at the time. He didn’t mind that I had visited the work site first but he said he’d heard that the French D.A., who had only recently been posted, wasn’t best pleased. Girding my loins, I prepared myself for some Gallic wrath and called on him. Certainly he wasn’t happy with me, particularly as his wife expected me for lunch, but after some grovelling and profuse apologies in schoolboy French the Entente Cordiale was partially restored. We parted on more friendly terms than we met. And so back to the airstrip at Lenakel for the return flight.

After landing at the grass strip the pilot explained that he wanted a quick getaway as a weather front was making its way down from the north and he wanted to get back to Bauerfield before it closed in. We left Tanna in afternoon sunshine but after about half an hour we ran into thick cloud. The pilot flew above the weather so we were still in bright sunshine but there was no sign of the Pacific Ocean beneath us. After flying on for an hour, there was still no sign of a break in the clouds and it was obvious that by now we had passed over Bauerfield and it looked as if we would be spending the night somewhere up north.

Suddenly, a break appeared in the cloud beneath us and through a hole we could see down to the sea and a coastline. The pilot put the plane into a descending left hand turn, eventually levelling out just below the cloud base, at about 500 feet I guess. In the space of half a minute we had gone from bright sunshine to deep gloom and heavy rain and limited visibility. The pilot followed the coastline until we rounded Devils Point and there we saw Hideaway Island and beyond it Bauerfield with all its lights blazing. The pilot sneaked in at low level, executed a greaser of a landing and calmly taxied in. I meant to ask him if he knew where we were all the time and if he recognised that bit of coastline but never got the chance.

On this occasion my wife was waiting patiently for me in our little Toyota Corolla unaware of what had been happening. Perhaps it was as well she didn’t know!

Copyright Tim Foster 2017. All rights reserved.